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Mexico's high expectations of peace

As killings drop in Mexico, a study measures the country's potential for peace. It finds attitudes and institutions in place that give Mexico a 'peace surplus.'

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    Omar Garcia Velasquez, left, speaks to Texas Democratic senators in Austin March 19 about the abduction of 43 of his classmates in Mexico in September. He was one of several survivors and relatives traveling through the U.S. to raise awareness of the abduction.
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Despite a reputation as a violence-racked country, Mexico has seen the level of homicides and organized crime drop by more than a quarter since 2011. The decline shows that the effort to break up big drug cartels is working. Good news, si? Then why are Mexicans still so worried about violent crime?

A new study that looks at the “dynamics of peace” in Mexico – rather than focusing merely on violence – provides a clue.

Conducted by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the study used 24 indicators, such as what people expect of government, to rank Mexico in its potential to bring about “positive peace.” It turns out Mexico has a high “peace surplus” compared with countries such as South Africa, Colombia, and Israel.

“Mexico can become more peaceful based on the strength and quality of its institutions, which are ranked much higher than Mexico’s actual level of peace,” finds the study. “Mexico continues to make the international headlines for its violence. However, there is reason for hope.”

In other words, Mexicans are still concerned about crime levels because they also have high expectations that their institutions can improve the peace. This may be caused in part because they perceive the drug wars as temporary and driven by foreign demand for drugs.

The study’s approach to measuring peace as a positive force, rather than as the mere absence of violence, is relatively new. Yet it can help governments see law enforcement less as a means of merely preventing crime and more as the expression of values such as honest governance, acceptance of the rights of others, and free flow of information .

Mexico can certainly benefit from this approach. The study estimates that violence still reduces its economic output by 17 percent. While homicides and drug-fueled violence are down, economic crimes such as kidnapping and extortion are up. Last year’s disappearance of 43 students in Iguala in southern Mexico has led to outrage against President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government.

The study supports work by others that forecast less violence in Mexico as recent political reforms kick in, such as changes to the state oil company and in labor laws. Violence levels are now returning to the levels seen before the war on drug cartels began a decade ago. Mexicans expect more of their leaders, and the results are starting to show.

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